'High Maintenance' Gets Wry On Its Own Supply

The comedy about a weed dealer in Brooklyn aces its transition from acclaimed web series to HBO

For some of us, looking into people’s homes is the greatest voyeuristic pleasure. HBO’s High Maintenance, formerly the most critically acclaimed web series out there, offers exactly that — glimpses into the Brooklynite lives of a lone-wolf pot dealer’s clients. Played by series cocreator Ben Sinclair, “The Guy” usually just wants to get his money and go. But, often, his customers won’t let him leave. More than the drugs, they want a friend, a confidant, a crush, an audience, someone to feel young with, someone to feel better than — and convenience is a plus.

Written and directed by Sinclair and his wife, Katja Blichfeld, High Maintenance began in 2012 as an ironic study of urban types. I wasn’t captivated by those earlier shorts, but found the six new episodes on HBO, which debut on Friday, September 16, remarkable for their emotional depth and compact storytelling. Nearly each of the half-hour installments is bifurcated into two separate, curveballing plots that uncloak the domestic lives of a broad swath of the Greenpoint area: those of a rebellious Muslim-American college student (Shazi Raja), a boho-in-all-the-wrong-ways couple (Amy Ryan and Lee Tergesen), a Joan Didion–quoting literary wannabe (Ismenia Mendes), a married pair of Chinese immigrant recyclers (Clem Cheung and Kristen Hung), and a return from the web series’s arguably most memorable character, the scamming hipster Homeless Heidi (Greta Lee). In impressively brief periods of time, Blichfeld and Sinclair get us to care about the double lives of their characters as The Guy appears and disappears, sometimes acting as our entry into his world, sometimes just passing through. As a whole, it’s an openhearted portrait of unwitting neighbors that inspires curiosity in the people around us.

Still, not all multitudes are compelling. The first story line in the premiere episode, about a bodybuilder type who attempts to out-macho the schlubby, balding Guy, upends a stereotype but remains the most lightweight and straightforwardly comedic of the season. But its partner plot, centered on a man, Max (Max Jenkins), who’s exhausted of being his insufferable female friend’s (Helene Yorke) gay bestie, showcases the series at its best, brilliantly unpeeling (and in some ways unraveling) a character in crisis and maneuvering perilous tonal shifts. As Max finds the queer community that he needs — but in a less-than-honest way — the show exudes warmth, eloquence, a wry sense of humor, and a keen interest in the many different ways our hearts break.

It’s refreshing to see Muslim and Asian-American characters, especially from working-class backgrounds, presented as equally emblematic of Brooklyn as the more familiar neurotic mom and the selfie-obsessed millennial (also represented on the show). But High Maintenance takes its fullest advantage of its web-based formal playfulness in the third episode, “Grandpa,” which devotes its entire half hour to a hip-level canine POV and attains the emotional complexity of a (good) Pixar film. As welcome as Lee usually is, the sequel to Homeless Heidi gets a bit too cartoonish and self-referential. (Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the earlier installments, which have been moved from Vimeo to HBO Go; the cable episodes are fine to watch on their own.) Established actors like Ryan, Dan Stevens, Orange Is the New Black’s Yael Stone, and cameos from Gaby Hoffman and Hannibal Buress (both playing themselves) add a glimmer of star power, but this is a show that knows there’s nothing more enthralling than those everyday yet extraordinary moments when we discover there’s more to someone than we’d possibly imagined.

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